My week in Scotland ended Saturday after some last-minute shopping in Edinburgh and a walk through one of the many venues at the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a celebration of the arts, especially those at the "fringes" (including comedy, theater, art exhibits and music). The festival started as I arrived 10 days ago and, as advertised, there were mobs of people in town for the many shows and associated activities.
Here are some observations about my week in Scotland that might be helpful if you are planning a first trip there:
Getting There: Discount Airline, Discount Service
Norwegian Air, the highly successful discount European airline, started service earlier this year from Hartford, CT, 35 minutes from my home, non-stop to Edinburgh. The fact that I did not have to hassle a drive to either Boston or New York, more than two hours away, to catch a non-stop flight to Scotland was just one of the benefits of the service; Norwegian's introductory fare of $99 to Edinburgh was too good to pass up, even though everything, including taking your bags along with you, costs extra, as does the return flight, which runs about three times more. Still, less than $500 roundtrip from an airport so close to home to an airport in the middle of the best region for golf in the world seemed like a godsend...that is, until you actually fly Norwegian. The seats are narrow, and on the way to Edinburgh, my elbow fought with my neighbor's elbow for space on the armrest between us. The seatback reclined maybe three degrees or so, making sleep on the overnight trip to Edinburgh impossible. (My neighbor's snoring, as he rested his head on his tray table only added to the insult.) The meal that came with the upgrade in service to include a checked bag was typical of airline food, which is to say overcooked to make sure they don't poison their patrons (or give them a single pleasurable chew). On the plus side, the flight to Edinburgh was 50 minutes earlier than scheduled, and the flight back to Connecticut just a few minutes late. Customs and immigration at both ends was pretty routine. In the end, there was little pleasure in the six-hour plus flights, except the knowledge of how much money you save flying Norwegian. In line to check in for the return flight from Edinburgh, I met a couple from Ohio who had driven eight hours to the airport in Newburgh, NY, just to catch a Norwegian flight to Edinburgh. Flights from Cleveland and Pittsburgh, both less than two hours from their home, were priced four to five times more than from Newburgh.
The Food & Drink
I mostly had good to very good meals out. Thursday night's meal in St. Andrews at a place called the Dolls House was good, and fairly priced for the quality of the food ("starters," or appetizers, averaged the equivalent of $11 and entrees ran an average $25). St. Andrews, which will be humming when all the students attending the university arrive in a week or two, was quiet, but the Doll's House was not, obviously popular with or without students in town. I had another nice meal during the week, with more about the atmosphere than the food, at The Haven restaurant in the tiny coastal town of Cellardyke. Getting there was a white-knuckle experience since The Haven is on a narrow street -- more like a lane -- which you get to by driving down other narrow lanes. I parked on the sidewalk just down the street from the restaurant making sure I left enough room between the front of the car and the doorways of the homes that open directly onto the street. My table in one of the house’s small dining rooms had a nice, but slightly obstructed view of the coastline. The pork chop I ordered at The Haven tasted funny, although it was beautifully cooked, and since I didn't take ill later, I assume that Scottish pigs taste different than American-bred pigs.
My best meal of the week was a filling lunch in the tiny clubhouse of Anstruther Golf Club, just down the coast from where I was staying in Crail. The Rockies restaurant, named for one of the holes on the old nine hole course, is separated into two parts -- one for members of the club and the other for members of the public. The members' side early on a Monday afternoon was mostly full; because of the quality of the cooking, the restaurant does a big business in a small town. I ordered the three-course prix fixe lunch and the waitress kindly permitted me to substitute a second starter in place of dessert. What she called a sweet corn chowder was really a stunning smoked fish stew, the fish most likely haddock, with a few bits of potato and corn nestled in the creamy, smoky soup. It ranks up there with the best soup I have ever had. The sea bass on a pea risotto was perfectly cooked, but after the soup, it was almost anti-climactic. The other starter, a chicken pate, was tasty and perfectly complemented with a jam and crackers but a little too runny for my taste. The three courses came to around $26. Choose wisely in the Kingdom of Fife and you can put together a week's worth of excellent meals at fair prices.
One last note for anyone who travels by themselves to Scotland. I drove 25 minutes to a well-reviewed steakhouse restaurant outside Edinburgh thinking that, even without a reservation, I could eat at the bar. “Sorry, sir,” said the hostess. “Food is not served at the bar.” Come to think of it, I don’t know that I have ever been in a pub or restaurant where the patrons did anything but drink at the bar. Lesson learned.
The Driving of the Car
Having only driven once in Scotland, back in 2008 and with limited comfort, I was intimidated at the prospect of getting out of the car rental lot at Edinburgh Airport without incident and making it to one of the main roads on the way north to Crail. I had the benefit of spending a few days in London immediately upon arriving in the UK, and I tried to train my brain for the other side of the road as I drove around the city in the passenger seat of my brother in law's car. I guess it worked because, aside from scraping into just a few curbs -- always on the left side of the car -- I became quite comfortable on the roads in Fife, even on those narrow village streets. The road courtesy among the area's citizens is something to behold, and even when the passageway is less than two car widths wide, all drivers will find a little notch in the sidewalk, wait behind a row of parked cars or take advantage of one of the many strategically places "passing places" set up along one-lane roads (such as those that serve as entrances to the golf courses). I wouldn't hesitate to drive in Scotland on a future golf holiday.
Earlier this year, I joined the Crail Golfing Society and its two wonderful golf courses as an “overseas member.” (I’ll make the case for membership and even a second home in Crail in an article soon.) That provides me with eight rounds each annually on the Balcomie Links and Craighead courses, plus the ability to bring guests for just £15 each (about $22), free golf at a number of golf courses in the Kingdom of Fife (e.g. Blairgowrie and its three layouts) and deeply discounted fees at some of the best courses in the area, including Ladybank. Crail membership also means access as a member to the centrally located Royal Overseas League facilities in Edinburgh, whose rooms overlook the famous Edinburgh Castle. The ROSL could come in handy on any future trips that necessitate a stay over in the city before or after golf in Crail, which is just a 75-minute car ride from Edinburgh.
I was lucky with the weather, getting rained out of only one round early in the week. (I could have joined the bundled up hearty Scots who headed to the first tee, but why torture myself on vacation? I still had more days to play.) Tuesday through Friday, I encountered rain on maybe three holes, none of it particularly heavy. The Balcomie Links course is everything you imagine about Scottish links golf; very tight lies in the fairways, the ability to putt from up to 20 yards off the green (I successfully negotiated a 30-yard putt mostly because my chipping game was awful) and winds so fierce at times that you have to remind yourself constantly that swinging harder does not result in a longer drive into the wind; on the contrary, it can ruin your swing for the rest of the round. The course was in splendid condition, which is to say never a bad lie, unless you find one of the few gorse bushes on the course or one of the many pot bunkers that, almost weirdly, didn’t seem to be in play from the 5,861 yard tees (those are the back tees, by the way, at a par of 69, a rating of 69.7 and a slope of 122). But don’t believe those rather wimpy numbers; the raters must have scoped out the course on a rare windless day.
Craighead, more than 100 years younger than Balcomie, was designed by Gil Hanse in 1998 and is a little less forgiving than its partner course, with plenty of tall grasses and heather to catch errant drives, whereas Balcomie is a bit more open, even though there are few trees on either course. The North Sea is in view from virtually every hole on Craighead and, of course, the wind can play havoc with most shots. This is one of the reasons that the greens are a little on the slow side on both courses; if they ran above 9 on the stimpmeter, it would be difficult to keep a ball from moving from its marked spot. At 6,651 yards from its back tees, Craighead is much longer than Balcomie and makes up for it with a par of 72. One memorable two-hole feature on the Craighead course is the wall immediately behind #10 green and then a wall that runs across the fairway on the par 4 11th, just 210 yards from the green and making all but the top of the flag impossible to see.
Golf professionals and their staffs in Scotland could not be more accommodating to visitors. Apparently, if you book a tee time as a single, you are permitted to play as a single, even if the course has other golfers waiting. While I was waiting to tee off at Crail Balcomie, the assistant pro sheepishly approached and asked if I minded being paired with two other golfers. On the contrary, I preferred it since playing as a single behind a foursome would make the round seem way longer than it was. I had a delightful day with a father and son from Spain.